Paul Gauguin, Tracey Emin and paying for our fertile landscape of culture and creativity
This weekend, I took my Gift Aided
Tate membership down to the blockbuster Gauguin: Maker of Myth
exhibition at the Tate Modern. And while the art on display may have been inspired, it is difficult to find oneself as enamoured with Paul Gauguin himself, “the self-made myth.”
Rejecting Western culture and his tedious life as a family man and stock-broker, Gauguin dreamed of a primitive paradise where he could “live off fish and fruit.” Following this romantic dream, he abandoned his wife and five children to sail to Tahiti, Panama, Martinique and the Marquesas islands. What he found in Tahiti and beyond was a significantly Westernised culture, where European colonists and Christian missionaries had been present and active for a century. Unperturbed, Gauguin carried on living his dreamed life as a noble savage. He built a home called “the house of pleasure,” kept pornography on display and took young native brides (aged 13, 14 and 14) and mistresses, who modelled for his now famous primitive art. After refusing to pay taxes to the colonial authorities in French Polynesia, Paul Gauguin died from syphilis at age 54 while awaiting a three month prison sentence.
Rather than a cautionary tale of social abdication, Paul Gauguin's self-made myth is today held up by many as the archetypal Artist going to the ends of the earth to remain uncompromised by the mutual obligations of civilisation. And perhaps that is the prerogative of the Artist, to pursue Nietzschean self-perfection at the expense of even basic social solidarity.
If so, then Tracey Emin must surely be hailed as the Paul Gauguin of our times. Just one year ago this month, Emin responded with public outrage at Alistair Darling who, himself responding to the financial crisis, raised the top rate of tax to 50% on income above £150,000. "I'm simply not willing to pay tax at 50%," she claimed. She was "very seriously considering leaving Britain." Despite being a multi-millionaire artist and simultaneously the beneficiary of countless state subsidies, Emin balked at making a contribution when times got tough.
One year later, Emin - who has not yet followed Gauguin to France, Tahiti or the Marquesas – was this month a prominent signatory to an open letter
to Jeremy Hunt:
We appeal to the government not to slash funding to the arts and heritage. It risks destroying this remarkable and fertile landscape of culture and creativity, and the social and economic benefits it brings to all.
It's not that the letter was wrong. The UK does have a remarkable and fertile landscape of culture and creativity, a sign of an incredibly successful combination of public and private subsidy. According to DCMS, the creative industries employ 2 million people in Britain and contribute £60 billion to the economy each year, 7.3 percent of the UK's GDP - compared with the US (just over 3%) or Canada (just under 3%). This, according to the Work Foundation, is the largest creative sector in the European Union and relative to GDP, probably the world.
The problem, as we approach this comprehensive spending review, is that we can't all be Artists, demanding subsidies and refusing taxes in the same breath.
Unlike funding for social services or for libraries, public money spent on media, culture and sport has helped to produce countless multi-millionaires, from Jonathan Ross, who voluntarily halved his £6m annual pay from the BBC, to Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin.
As society and the state face new constraints on spending and we are forced to choose between supporting culture and fighting poverty, our cultural celebs should follow the lead of America's billionaire philanthropists or the homegrown J K Rowling, who was supported by benefits when she wrote the original Harry Potter and today devotes over £5million per year to fighting poverty. These are individuals who, having made fortunes from their creativity, have gone above and beyond their obligations to the state, even helping to supplement it where it has failed.
ResPublica will be co-hosting a roundtable on "Philanthropy and Giving" on 20 Oct, 2010. For further information click here.